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Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist. Initially a collaborator with Sigmund Freud, the two later split and Jung went on to found the Analytical Psychology school of psychotherapy. His approach focussed on what he called the process of individuation, in which the conscious and unconscious impulses in an individual are brought into harmony. He coined many concepts with a currency beyond psychiatry, including archetype, the collective unconscious, complex and synchronicity.

segal

Following a spell of “creative madness” in 1913, he increasingly applied his theories to more diverse subjects – myths, alchemy, gnosticism, even UFOs. In this entertaining interview, Robert Segal tells David about Jung’s impact on theories of religion. Why was Jung so fascinated by religious ideas, and why do his ideas remain so influential today? Did he mean them in the way they have been subsequently appropriated?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the first episode on a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. Following episodes feature interviews with Paul-Francois Tremlett on Levi-Strauss and Ivan Strenski on Durkheim.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.

Podcasts

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.

hunter-gatherers

Hunter-gatherers

Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist. Initially a collaborator with Sigmund Freud, the two later split and Jung went on to found the Analytical Psychology school of psychotherapy. His approach focussed on what he called the process of individuation, in which the conscious and unconscious impulses in an individual are brought into harmony. He coined many concepts with a currency beyond psychiatry, including archetype, the collective unconscious, complex and synchronicity.

segal

Following a spell of “creative madness” in 1913, he increasingly applied his theories to more diverse subjects – myths, alchemy, gnosticism, even UFOs. In this entertaining interview, Robert Segal tells David about Jung’s impact on theories of religion. Why was Jung so fascinated by religious ideas, and why do his ideas remain so influential today? Did he mean them in the way they have been subsequently appropriated?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

This is the first episode on a series on early 20th century theorists of religion. Following episodes feature interviews with Paul-Francois Tremlett on Levi-Strauss and Ivan Strenski on Durkheim.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Religion and Globalization

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ‘religion’ in a ‘global context’ – from Mark Juergensmeyer’s sociotheological approach to ‘cosmic war’, to Douglas Pratt’s discussion of the ‘persistence and problem’ of ‘religion’, and Ryan Cragun’s introduction and overview to Mormon demographics across the globe. The final interview in this series was recorded in Ottawa in November 2012, and features Chris speaking with Peter Beyer, Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, who – as Chris has proudly stated ad nauseum – literally wrote the book on Religions in Global Society.

What do we mean by globalization? What does this concept have to say to the study of religion? How have religions been agents in the globalization process? What theoretical and methodological issues arise when trying to answer such questions? All of these questions and more are tackled in an interview which touches on post-colonialism, secularization theory, theodicy, Rational Choice Theory, and something called Post-Westphalianism. We hope you enjoy it!

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

In the earlier parts of his career, Peter Beyer focused his research primarily on sociological theory of religion and on themes in Canadian religious history, doing his doctoral dissertation on the Louis Riel and postdoctoral studies on 19th and 20th century French Canadian Roman Catholicism. Since the mid-1980s, however, his main interests have centred on the sociological understanding of the relations between religion and globalization and on religion in contemporary Canada. His current research focuses on religious diversity and multiculturalism in Canada, especially as concerns recent immigrants and the second generation of these immigrants. He is the author of Religion and Globalization, Religions in Global Society, and co-editor (with Lori Beaman) of Religion, Globalization, and Culture (International Studies in Religion and Society Series).

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

So What Is Religion Anyway? Power, Belief, the Vestigial State

Editors Note: To contextualise this piece, you may also wish to read Naomi Goldenberg’s post on the Critical Religion blog, entitled Gender and the Vestigial State of Religion.

Prof. Goldenberg’s interview raises as many questions as it answers, in a good way. It seems to square the circle. She puts the topic of “religion” into context by making it disappear — or, to put it less cryptically, she insists that the codes by which we understand religion to be defined, and perhaps “made official”, are in fact no different from any other codes of law. Religion is a force that structures our social world, and so the study of religions is necessarily the study of politics. The division between church and state is arbitrary: religion is politics.

A religion is a vestigial state because it can do many of the same things a modern, functioning state does. Depending on the situation, it might provide an identity, govern behaviour, apportion powers, legitimate violence — in short, structure the community that belongs to it. Prof. Goldenberg underlines very strongly that she is looking at religion in terms of its impact on, and presence in, ordinary people’s lives.

Her caution around her own term ‘vestigial state’, and indeed ‘religion’, reflects a classically Feminist position. She endorses the evidence first and the terminology second. This should also make sense to those for whom religion is real: those who respect the fact that religion, however we understand that term, plays a very strong role in shaping our life and customs. This is especially important for the regularly oppressed category of women. I am reminded of work by Sally Haslanger, who looks at another tricky word, ‘gender’, and considers it to be a social class [article].

Prof. Goldenberg’s insistence on a functional view of religion, a perspective that describes it in terms of its role, also suggests a point of view very different from that of a classical believer. If religion is part of culture, and culture is a tool that we use, then religion is also a tool. God, and the series of texts that explain him, serves us — not the other way around. This is what might be described as a focal analysis — again, comparable to Prof. Haslanger’s work in describing gender.

It might be unnerving for some to understand the subtext to Prof. Goldenberg’s statement that this does not do away with the concept of God because every state, she suspects, probably depends on some sort of abstraction. What we are asked to consider is a spectrum of cultures, practices, organizations, each with their own abstraction — perhaps the identity of a people, perhaps “America”, perhaps God, to give three examples — that the population reveres. From an Abrahamic prespective, it might well be peculiar to see it suggested that God might be not separate, not ‘special’, but rather a particular version of a range of abstractions that exist or have existed in every society.

The suggestion of a range of God-concepts – perhaps a multidimensional range or field – is an appealing one for students of human nature. At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg wants us to consider historical contingency very carefully.  When our focus is so practical, so earthbound and concerned with everyday people and experiences, we suddenly realize that everyday experience is very different for different times, places, people. The statement might seem banal until we realize that, as Prof. Goldenberg reminds us, ‘religion’ as a term of argument is a confused, unstable, even incoherent category. We will discover, if we compare (for example) Roman ritual beliefs with Medieval Christianity with modern Islam with contemporary Buddhism, that each of these — cultures? Belief systems? — does many things for the people who espouse them, but that those many things are never identical from one “religion” to another, and certainly not one time to another.

These ideas seem to strike a chord with certain developments from literary theory. Consider, for example, how she highlights the need for scholars in religious studies (indeed, perhaps, any field of cultural studies) to remember the constructed nature of our tools. We should always remember that our ideas are never truly independent from their makers. This reminds me of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion that we should consider “la structuralité d’une structure”, the quality that a framework has of creating relationships. A conceptual framework becomes a differential field, of differential meanings, with both local and general biases.

At the same time, Prof. Goldenberg’s focus on how these structuralities can produce bitter consequences for living people – again, women in particular – is a much more direct, and serious, attitude towards the subject than Derrida’s playfulness. She seems to be closer in spirit to Eve Sedgwick, who reminds us that power in culture is often filtered through a series of systems, codes, and different bodies of law, present and struggling at the same time (Sedgwick 1991: 46-47). Sedgwick discusses concepts regarding another ill-defined concept, ‘sexuality’. She observes that recent scholarship concerning sexuality has, in her view, done away with many outmoded concepts and definitions of it. However, she also reminds us that these ‘outmoded’ concepts are both popularly held by many, and a constitutive force in many jurisdictions, including the one she lives in (North Carolina in the early 1990s, for that text). Her humanitarian crique is very comparable with Goldenberg’s enquiry into ‘religion’, which focuses on effect rather than justification or truth (claimed or otherwise).

The question of terminology lingers over this discussion. ‘Vestigial’ does imply a negative teleology, a dwindling, which seems to be at odds with religion’s continuing influence in culture. ‘Once and future’ also fits ill, given that religion is effective now, if only to a degree. ‘Partial state’? This suggests that every state needs a religion. Given the breadth of possible definitions of religion this seems to be true, but the simplicity of that formula looks too risky – too prone to abuse if it were applied to the material world.

I like the term ‘metastate’. Religion can provide a narrative that justifies a power system – so, by extension, it is about a state as well as constituting one. The etymological root meanings of ‘adjacent’ and ‘beyond’ also appeal, although this might reflect my own bias as a Westerner. I am used to a culture with several sets of partially-integrated rules.

Whatever term proves to work best, there is no escaping the force of Prof. Goldenberg’s suggestion that religion fundamentally is about power. If we can agree that religion is the combination of power and belief, we will have her to thank for helping us pin down this evasive, volatile concept.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1966. Trans. Alan Bass.            Modern Criticism and Theory: a Reader. Ed. David Lodge. Rev. ed. Harlow: Longman, 1997. 108-23.

Haslanger, Sally.Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?The Philosopher’s Annual 23 (2000). 2 Nov 2007.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. 1990. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Weatsheaf, 1991.